A landmark climate change conference starts today in Oberlin, Ohio. The conference will bringing together many of the world's leading thinkers, political figures, economists, investors, philanthropists, business leaders, educators and public intellectuals to discuss the changes needed to "spur a successful transition to a sustainable, resilient, prosperous and equitable economy driven by safe, renewable energy." Oberlin College and The Oberlin Project are hosting After Fossil Fuels: The Next Economy from Oct. 6 - 8.
Our current industrial agricultural system, predicated on the availability of cheap energy and a stable climate in which to grow, faces two immediate threats—peaking oil production and destabilization of the global climate. Farming has always been a difficult enterprise and will only continue to be challenged by the rising cost of energy and an increasingly challenging climate—including more extensive droughts, heavier precipitation and flooding, and extreme weather events.
Unaddressed, climate change tops the list of issues that has the capacity to undermine the stability of societies, economies and the ecological systems upon which all life depends. Attentive public response to the issue to date has been nil. In the absence of significant national action, communities still possess significant power to create change, including efforts to develop sustainable local food systems. During a recent visit to Oberlin College, renowned author Bill McKibben noted that “as we are no longer able to use fossil fuels for industrial farming, either because we have run out of it or because we have realized the danger it presents to the atmosphere, we are going to have to start to figure out again how to get people back on the farm.”
McKibben suggested that, rather than think of this as a doomsday scenario, think of it as “one of the great opportunities for creative employment going forward.”
Oberlin, a small town with a student and resident population of about 10,000, is in the process of organizing a comprehensive community initiative to transition away from fossil-fuel dependency while mitigating its contributions to climate change. Named the Oberlin Project, the initiative involves a collaboration between Oberlin College, the City of Oberlin, the Oberlin City School District, and Oberlin community members.
One initiative of the Oberlin Project will build on a long history of leadership in local food systems development. David Orr, founder of the Oberlin Project, worked to initiate one of the first college-based local food purchasing initiatives in the country at Hendrix College in Arkansas in the mid 1980s. Orr worked with a group of Oberlin students to replicate the Hendrix project at Oberlin in the late 1980s. Today, the college purchases between 25-32 percent of its food from local sources.
Building on this legacy, the community is beginning to look at the potential for a 70 percent localization of its food supply. What could this level of localization mean for community wealth, job creation and quality of life? How can this system be designed for resilience in the light of a more challenging climate that threatens the very stability of all local food systems?
The Oberlin Project is supporting four sequences for local food systems development. The first assesses the pathways of innovation and entrepreneurship that led to Oberlin’s current levels of local food activity over the last 20 years. How can existing local food supply networks be expanded and how can new farmers and businesses enter into the local food space? This work will be carried out in conjunction with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which is developing a strategic plan for preserving a 20,000 acre network of farmland in Lorain and surrounding counties that can supply food, energy and materials to the local economy.
The second phase is a community investment portfolio designed in collaboration with the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center. This portfolio will look at how existing assets in the community can be more effectively leveraged while identifying additional assets needed to support growth of the local food economy. Assets are not just financial, but will include networks, time, knowledge, existing facilities and even passion.
The third phase will look at developing a regenerative agriculture learning institute that will link with a network of national and international food system innovators to create a portfolio of techniques that include carbon farming (methods for sequestering carbon in soils while improving topsoil conditions), rotational grazing, perennial polyculture systems, micro-farming, agro-forestry and community food development. This initiative is being developed in conjunction with the New Agrarian Center and will augment several sustainable agriculture and culinary arts initiatives at Oberlin College, Lorain County Community College and the Joint Vocational School in Oberlin.
The fourth initiative calls for development of a regional learning network that can link Oberlin and local food communities across Northeast Ohio to share best practices, innovations and inspirational stories, all aimed at accelerating overall learning in and growth of the regional food system in the region.
Meaningful action to address climate change and sustainable energy development may have disappeared from the national agenda, but a growing network of collaborating communities across Northeast Ohio and the nation have the power to lead the necessary transitions in the absence of national leadership.
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Despite the demise of federal climate change legislation, cities across the nation continue efforts started under the 2009 federal stimulus act to revitalize their communities and make them sustainable. One of the most inspiring examples is right here in Ohio.
The Oberlin Project is a collaboration among the City of Oberlin, Oberlin College, the city’s municipal electric utility, as well as community and business stakeholders, to make Oberlin, Ohio the greenest little city in the U.S. and a national model for sustainable economic development. In the process, the project hopes to revitalize the ailing local economy, equip local residents with the green skills needed to do the work and create an educational laboratory for younger generations.
This effort builds off nationally-renowned environmental educator David Orr’s past success in creating the first-of-its-kind “living building” that still wins architectural and sustainability awards a decade later. The Adam Joseph Lewis Center was designed by nearly 250 students and 20 design-group members charged to do no harm in the world.
The Oberlin Project applies this same high-road approach to community-wide green development. It recognizes that past practices of the conventional energy economy and low-road economic development strategies that produce vast amounts of waste, leave workers unemployed or earning low wages, communities impoverished, residents dependent on fossil fuels imported from out of state and the environment polluted. This project seeks to forge a new way forward. An approach that balances the three E’s of sustainable development— economic development, environmental integrity and social equity—by driving demand for clean energy while leveraging green investments in a way that maximizes their value to the community.
The aggressive goals of the Oberlin Project require a holistic approach that addresses all energy-using and emissions-producing sectors. An inventory of the city’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions identified the need to reduce emissions from electric power generation, green the community’s commercial and industrial sector, develop a more sustainable transportation system and promote energy saving opportunities for residents. Participating stakeholders are divided into working groups and challenged to develop sustainability strategies to achieve these goals.
In Ohio, half of all carbon emissions come from the electric power sector. One of Oberlin’s greatest assets, however, is its community-owned electric utility that operates in the best interest of its citizenry rather than for profit maximization. Oberlin Municipal Light & Power is on track to secure 90 percent of its energy from local renewable energy resources by 2015—largely from landfill gas captured and turned into useful energy.
Doing so will not only significantly reduce the community’s emissions, it will also stabilize customer rates, promote greater self reliance on local energy sources, keep the community’s energy dollars in the region, and supply green power to local residents and businesses. Manufacturers located in Oberlin can tout that products are made with green power and a low carbon footprint. It’s this kind of commitment to sustainability that convinced GreenField Solar, a designer of high-tech solar photovoltaic cells that also capture solar thermal energy, to move to Oberlin.
The local government and its anchor institution, Oberlin College, also plan to lead by example. The city and the college are analyzing their energy usage, setting goals to increase renewable energy generation, promoting energy efficiency, and developing green, local and efficient purchasing standards. The City of Oberlin completed a climate action plan, the Oberlin public school district is studying the concept of a consolidated, green school building and the Oberlin public library has undergone a green retrofit. Oberlin College is hoping to secure two megawatts of solar energy, has adopted campus building standards and is investigating geothermal heat pumps to replace the college’s coal-fired heating plant, among other things.
To promote greater sustainability of Oberlin’s transportation system, Oberlin College is developing a13-acre green arts district in the town square and planning a 20,000 acre greenbelt around the community to grow the market for local foods and explore other agricultural opportunities such as biogas. This effort is based on two key smart-growth principles— reinvestment in downtown, Main Street and existing infrastructure to create a vibrant town center, and preservation of natural land, in part by promoting agricultural activities and supporting efforts to process rural resources.
Visions of a multi-modal transportation system that could include electric vehicle infrastructure, light rail, street cars, bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets and car-sharing services are being discussed. Innovative ideas to green the commercial and industrial sector, such as ecoindustrial parks, are on the table, as is a city-scale home retrofit program to promote energy savings for residents.
Keep your eye on this exciting project as it develops. If it can be done in a small town of 8,000 residents, where resources are limited, it can be done anywhere.
For more information, contact Amanda Woodrum at firstname.lastname@example.org.